Each year before 1957 had brought hints of the progression in music and popular culture that rock’n’roll brought about, but these were often few and far between, with the charts still dominated by fluffy, overwrought, orchestrated love songs, often performed by a revolving door of crooners.
1957 had changed all that. By and large, rock’n’roll ruled, with Guy Mitchell and Frankie Vaughan the only crooners to hit the top spot, and even then, Mitchell was aping the new sound. It was also entirely male-dominated. Female singers didn’t get a look in. As winter and Christmas loomed though, record buyers once more turned to something cosier.
Mary’s Boy Child had been written by Jester Hairston a US songwriter, actor and leading expert on Negro spirituals. Originally called He Pone and Chocolate Tea (pone was a type of corn bread), in this form it had nothing to do with Christmas and was a calypso song for a friend’s birthday party. Later, famous film composer Walter Schumann asked Hairston to write a Christmas tune for his choir. Remembering the birthday song, he simply rewrote the lyrics and made them festive-themed, similar to how Slade rewrote a psychedelic song and transformed it into Merry Xmas Everybody. (Incidentally, Mary’s Boy Child was the last explicitly festive Christmas number 1 until Slade in 1973). Harry Belafonte had heard the choir performing the new version and asked if he could cover it.
Belafonte, born Harold George Bellanfanti Jr, was born on 1 March 1927 in Harlem, New York, to parents of Jamaican and Dutch descent. He served in the navy during World War Two, and returned to New York afterwards to work as a janitor’s assistant. A tenant gave him two tickets to the American Negro Theatre, where he instantly fell in love with the stage, and also befriended Sidney Poitier. They were both so poor, they would buy a single ticket for local plays, then trade places between acts, so one could inform the other of what had taken place.
To help pay for his acting classes, Belafonte became a singer. At his very first show, he was backed by the Charlie Parker Band, which included Miles Davis as well as Parker. He began recording in 1949, and his breakthrough came in 1956 with the album Calypso, the first LP in the world to sell over a million copies in a year, and the first to sell that many ever in the UK. Introducing the wider world to calypso music, it featured the hits Banana Boat Song (‘Day-O’) and and Jump in the Line (both of which are great and I got to know them thanks to the 1988 film Beetlejuice)
This is the first Christmas number 1 to get to the same chart position later when covered by another act, namely Boney M in 1978. How does it compare? Well I don’t get the love for Boney M at all, and I particularly don’t like their cover of Mary’s Boy Child, so it’s no competition really.
Belafonte is in fine voice as always, though it’s a shame he didn’t opt for a livelier approach to the song. He’s singing in a calypso rhythm but the music doesn’t really match. Despite this, I’d easily take it over a naff disco-lite version with an extra bit tacked on the end for no reason.
Record-buyers in 1957 loved the religious imagery and cosy string backing, keeping it at number 1 for seven weeks from November, well into January 1958.
In 1959 Belafonte became the first African American to win an Emmy. A young Bob Dylan played harmonica on his 1962 album Midnight Special. As the 60s progressed he became dissatisfied with his film work and the music hits were drying up. By that point he was known as a prominent civil rights activist, and provided great financial help to Martin Luther King. He helped organise marches and bailed King and several other protestors out of jail. Much more personally rewarding than his other careers, I should guess.
Later, Belafonte organised the 1985 charity single and number 1 We Are the World, became a UNICEF ambassador, and a staunch critic of apartheid and US foreign policy. He supported Bernie Sanders in his bid to become US President, and will no doubt be horrified at the current state of his country’s politics.
Written by: Jester Hairston
Producer: Rene Farron
Weeks at number 1: 7 (22 November 1957-9 January 1958)
Singer Billy Bragg – 20 December
Writer Michael Sadleir – 13 December – Michael Sadleir
Writer Dorothy L. Sayers – 17 December
Composer Eric Coates – 21 December
4 December: At the Lewisham by-pass, in dense fog, an electric train stopped at a signal under a bridge. A steam train crashed into it, causing the bridge to collapse onto the latter. The rail crash left 90 dead.
Christmas Day: Queen Elizabeth II marked the 25th anniversary of the first Christmas broadcast on the radio with the start of a new tradition. For the first time, the speech also featured on television. The Queen made reference to this change, and put older viewers minds at ease by remarking that the age of change was sometimes bewildering, but everyone would be okay if we hung on to ageless ideals and values. However, during the speech some viewers experienced confusion when they overheard an American voice say ‘Joe, I’m gonna grab a quick coffee…’ Apparently, at this time, sunspots often caused freak radio conditions, resulting in US police radio transmissions interfering in UK television broadcasts. I’d imagine that was very bewildering.